A year in retrospect

Today I turned 35.  A year ago on this very day, I was sat in the office getting a project I was involved with reach a crucial milestone.  This has been the first time in many years where I have been able to spend it a way that isn’t a complete distraction from what truly matters – a time to reflect and move onwards.

So, what has changed in one year?

  • After nearly 4 years of inertia, I finally started a complete overhaul of my apartment. Progress is good, given that this is a complex undertaking in both the financial and personal levels, but the rewards far outweigh the inertia of ‘someday’ that was plaguing me in the back of my mind all this time.
  • I travelled to India several times,  and visited two new places in Europe as well. I was planning to experience true authentic Ayurvedic treatments for a long time. Finally, I am glad that I trusted my judgement and visited Kerala for 3 weeks in December.
  • I bought my first car in the UK. This again, was a decision that fraught with many doubts, but I am glad that I finally made a decision and went ahead with my judgement.
  • I started a blog – I have always wanted to express my thoughts and realisations inside of me in some form. After much deliberation, I decided to do it in the form of a blog. At this point, it is too early to tell whether this will be a success, but for the time being, it allows me to organise and track my personal development

There is a quote from the ‘The Life of Pi’  which struck in my mind ever since I watched the movie

Pi Patel: Faith is a house with many rooms.

Writer: But no room for doubt?

Pi Patel: Oh plenty, on every floor. Doubt is useful, it keeps faith a living thing. After all, you cannot know the strength of your faith until it is tested.

Faith comes in many forms – religion is the most frequently conjured connotation.  But if we pause for a moment, we come to realise that we have ‘faith’ in many things in our lives.

  • That our fall-back options will always be there
    Maybe it is the dependability of our loved ones – whom we believe will always be available to break our fall.  Or the savings in the bank that we have kept aside for a ‘rainy day’. Or that employer you work for who believes you are indispensable
  • Hope/belief in that the world around us will remain constant (while we execute our strategy)
    We engage ourselves in goals that are born out of our analysis to be happy in life.  It could be that mortgage you are focused on repaying early. The career ladder you try to climb before you ‘settle down’ and have a family.  Or that person whose heart you are trying to win
  • That we have more time (than we actually do)
    A close friend and colleague of mine, passed away last September. She was 30 years old. During all the times we interacted, it never occurred to me that I would lose her company so suddenly. I remember writing an email promising to stay in touch when she left the company we worked at – but I did not realise she would pass away before I got to write that letter to ask how she is keeping with her change in life.

What if one day you realised that, these options no longer exist? Or the ambitions you spent time working on were based on a flawed analysis?

“If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter” ~Pascal

The biggest hinderance in our lives is not spending time to understand ourselves. No other human being knows you as well as you know yourself. Even those who are extremely close to us will never truly know the myriad of facets of us. There will always be that one tiny detail, that one little secret we hesitate to reveal about ourselves, that prevents another person from knowing us as well as we do.

“You read to become all knowledgable
But you never read yourself

You run to enter your mosques and temples
But you never entered your own heart

Everyday you fight Satan
But you never fight your own Ego

You try grabbing that which is in the sky
But you never get hold of what sits inside yourself

Stop it all my friend
Stop seeking all this knowledge my friend

Only an Alif is what you need
Stop it all my friend

Stop seeking all this knowledge my friend
God is Greatness, God is All

I shall follow the Jogi (ascetic)
those who deny the strength of Truth
God does not give them courage

We have drowned in the river of Self
the boat and the flowing waters do not matter

Stop it all my friend
Stop seeking all this knowledge my friend

God is Greatness, God is All”

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The significance of small things done over time

Have you ever wondered about the potential of a seemingly insignificant, repetitive task? Let’s take an example: Imagine, from a very young age a child is taught to live healthily – eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, greens, nuts, regular exercise and sports activity, drinking plenty of water a day, meditation, and spiritual knowledge. One could view this upbringing as a very healthy preparation for the years ahead. While some may regard a few or most of the listed aspects of the child’s lifestyle as excessive, impractical, and sometimes unnecessary, it is true that one could grow to have a similar ‘balanced’ lifestyle by not being so fastidious about the little things in the first child’s life. Whilst we would all agree on a healthy diet, no one ever had problems due to the occasional intake of junk food and caffeine. Besides, what does one lose by missing one day’s worth of exercise, fruit and veg,  meditation, or spiritual knowledge?

One could (naturally) therefore, disregard some aspects of an ideal lifestyle as being insignificant, boring, or having very minimal effect that could be perceived immediately.  After all, such a rigid discipline leads to an unhealthy obsession – one  which actually prevents one from experiencing and enjoying life – does it not?

However, fast-forward 50 years into the future. This child, now a mature adult, while showing some signs of aging of the body, would definitely look much more youthful and healthy than most (if not, all) of his/her peers of same age. The benefits are not constrained to physical attributes – they extend beyond this to include: having the discipline to have a goal and persist despite all circumstances, until the goal is reached. In sharp contrast, most people’s new year resolutions only last a couple of weeks, after which the normal habits resume. It is therefore evident that the persistence and cultivation of good habits – especially the ones that seemed ‘insignificant’ – culminate into having a significant impact over time. Thus, it appears that certain things – which are seemingly insignificant – have a profound effect when compounded over time.

But the observation does not end there.

What makes this observation more significant is that, even if all of this person’s peers (after all those years of neglect) suddenly started living more healthily, and cultivated all the good habits of this person (who has been doing it throughout his/her life), I would assert that they still would not be able to catch up with this person’s level of advancement.

And this is my point: You cannot (always) play ‘catch-up’ in life.

For some things in life, we can ‘catch up’ by increasing our resolve in our efforts. Like walking twice as fast towards the bus-stop, due to being delayed by a few minutes, or turning up the heat in the stove in order to boil a pot of water in half the time. Yes, it is possible to compensate by increasing our effort, but the circumstances in which this could be applied is comprised of a small finite set. For the rest of things in life, you simply cannot ‘make up’ towards things you have been negligent towards.

I see people who have been ignoring the importance of saving for a pension for the first 10 – 15 years of their working life, and suddenly start making bigger contributions to their pension fund hoping to ‘catch up’ for the delay on their part. We see people start to take on longer and more strenuous exercise routines and sports supplements to minimise the cumulative damage they inflicted on their bodies by improper posture, malnutrition, and lack of exercise – with limited results. We see people try to repair the damage they have done the their relationships by neglecting to do the simple things  – like saying ‘Please’, ‘Thank You’, or remembering to keep an appointment or promise. We even see people suddenly embrace spirituality – on the verge of their death  – because long time ago, they looked upon religion as a crutch they did not need. All of these people had not understood the significance of doing something small over a lifetime. All of these people ignored doing these ‘trivial’ things – and this is what I have come to realize recently.

The little things do matter

I experienced this bitter truth during my second year at University, spending sleepless nights pouring over textbooks, cramming as much information as I could – a few days before the exam – when all that suffering could have been avoided by spending a mere 10 – 15 minutes each day going through my notes for the 3 months I was taught the module.

In Software Engineering, there is a fundamental graph that is used to explain the importance of avoiding mistakes very early on in the project life cycle.

As illustrated above, the cost of making a change is much more costly towards the end of the development cycle than it is towards the beginning.

It is the same in life; mistakes not corrected early in life culminate to big problems over time. People delay doing simple things, like putting 5% of their salary towards a pension, or doing some simple breathing exercise (Pranayama yoga) 5-10 minutes a day, or spending 5 minutes to tidy the clutter sitting on their desk, or go through the little things that they should do on a daily basis. These seemingly ‘insignificant’ things are so deceptively trivial – that we tend to dismiss them altogether, without paying much attention.

Interestingly, when things get difficult the quest for a ‘quick fix’ manifests within all of us. We love getting fast results which involve minimal effort – and we tend to dismiss things that take time. Which is ironic, as it was the dismissal of little things that take time that gave us the problem in the first place. Nevertheless, this affection with ‘quick-fixes’ has not gone unnoticed by marketing and advertising. Supermarkets are filled with microwaveable meals which are ‘ready to eat in less than 5 minutes’. Numerous diet pills, exercise gadgets, herb supplements are available on the market today to cater for the ‘busy’ people who want ‘quick results’. A quick look at Amazon reveals books such as ‘Learning <a popular programming language> in less than 24 hours’ for those who prefer to ‘catch-up’ with the learning they did not take the proper time and effort to learn. Numerous ‘Get rich quick’ books are being published for those who lack a meaningful goal in life, instead prefer to enjoy life by putting in the least amount of effort.

All of these marketing gimmicks aim to instill an impression in the peoples’ minds: that  “Quick-fixes are just as effective as things that take time”. This ideal is only true when applied in the context of ‘working smarter, not harder’  – advertising has distorted this sentiment by making it an absolute truth that needs to be applied in all aspects of our lives. The reality is not as simple as what the subtle advertising messages would like you to believe. Whether it is the latest get-rich-quick scheme, or healthy meals in less than 2 minutes, all of these attempt to cure the symptoms and not the cause of the problem – the person’s attitude towards life. It is for this reason, that most of the results of  these short-term rigorous exercise routines do not bring lasting benefits, and most people who subscribe to these fads nearly always have trouble maintaining the results they achieved. In my personal experience, I observed that I was more prone to forget subject material that I crammed for an exam the night before –  than the subjects which I loved and spent time each evening for an entire semester. I ended remembering the subject matter of those favourites long after I stopped studying it, whilst the others subjects (which I crammed for) were forgotten almost the day after the exam. Similarly, those who cultivate the discipline of taking care of the little often-neglected things in life over a long period of time, have much better success compared to those who lack patience and resolve end up resorting to fast, easy solutions that never work – and even when they do, yield only temporary results.

Remember the example I mentioned at the very beginning? Even though one may present oneself to have achieved the same level of success as the person who maintained a certain discipline for many years, there is another aspect that almost always goes unnoticed: despite physical similarities, both of these individuals are not on the same mental platform. The person, who has disciplined him/herself to have the courage, determination and fortitude to be resolute in their purpose will be far more advanced than the person who hasn’t. And the beauty about this is that, such a person’s achievements in life are not short-lived. Despite the ability to artificially catch-up with external attributes such as physique and beauty, it is not always possible to catch up with a person’s advancement in character. It is for this reason, that all of the catch-up gimmicks mentioned above do not work – they focus on curing the wrong problem: symptoms, and not the the root cause.

I believe the way forward for me is to not focus on big changes, and grandiose schemes that reap quick rewards, but to shape and build my character to something which I could reflect upon one day and be proud of. Everything else, will just fall into place – I need not worry about that.

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Setting the Scene – Knowing Thyself

“Have the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can and the wisdom to know the difference”

I recently came across the book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People‘. I must admit, I was skeptical at first when I came across this – as I regarded as this to be yet another book of shallow platitudes, but was impressed by how much insight and depth into human excellence it embodied.

This blog documents my journey and realisations as I embark on the application of these principles in life. For once in my life, I am taking that first courageous step towards changing what I can, the discovery and acceptance with serenity that which I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference in my quest to realise the perfection of my potential.

Once upon a time…

For as long as I can remember, I have always been an inquisitive thinker. This inquisitiveness earned me respect from adults as a child, and expectations that I would be extremely successful as an adult. Curiosity being a pre-requisite for greatness, no doubt – but after 34 years,  I still feel that there is something inside of me that is dying to get out.

I have naturally been overly-cautious all my life, which has most probably spared me some of  the feelings of regret. However, I feel I never learned to trust myself to commit to that first step towards a new unchartered territory – even when I was ready and it was the right time to do so. I only experienced the feeling of how I wish I took this step much earlier in life. I wished I had the ‘wisdom to know the difference‘ between a risk not worth taking vs. the paralysis induced by self-doubt.

But WHY?

I have always had most of my decisions made for me as a child. Independence was something you had once you became an adult. There was an inherent reliance instilled in me to turn to teachers, parents and adults around me – but never a plan of transition to take on more responsibility and trust myself with judgement. 

Mistakes, I was told, wasn’t always reversible – so I grew up with a paranoia of making one.

And then, one day I discovered I was an adult

It was time to make decisions that I usually relied on guidance for. But this time it was different. I was asked questions like:

  • What do you want to be in life? Convince us that you are a smart, intelligent person’
  • What are your greatest strengths? weaknesses?’
  • Give me an example where you were faced with tough choices, and had to make a difficult decision’

And I did the only thing I knew how to do – I sought the advice of a trustworthy source. I read books on interview questions and answers, repeated someone else’s convictions and beliefs. I leaned on the common clichés and platitudes to generate a false air of confidence and momentum in my life that conveyed an intellectual maturity and conviction that never existed in substance.

But borrowed wisdom only takes a person so far. Sooner or later it gradually gets replaced with actual wisdom that comes from the lessons where the context and mis(application) become apparent.  Such lessons in life are few and far between – depending on the person’s eagerness to learn and willingness to try new things. With maturity we get set in our ways, follow established patterns for the right or wrong reasons and rarely venture into the unknown. Thus the fundamental changes in our attitudes and behaviour rarely shift as we get older.

Even worse, we become our own stumbling blocks in our progress in life. We adopt personality traits and self-justifying rationalisations that form the convenient excuses for a safe-house we take shelter and refuge from that which we find terrifying to face. And over time, these traits and rationalisations form the bedrock upon which we live our lives.

Stephen Covey sums this up even more eloquently:

“[..] Borrowing strength builds weakness. It builds weakness in the borrower, because it reinforces dependence on external factors to get things done. It builds weakness in the person forced to acquiesce, stunting the development of independent thinking [..]

The moment I came across this passage I realised just how much meaning was condensed behind just two sentences.

And I’m tired of hiding in my safe-house. It’s time to do something about it – or accept a sentiment that is bound to resurface in future which begins with the words ‘If only I had [..]

Embracing the unknown

It is time I learned to accept that despite all the careful due-diligence one can do – you are bound to make mistakes.  And when they happen – not to use the pain as a crutch to revert back to the comfort of the safe refuge that is waiting with the door wide open, but to accept the pain and frustration as a necessary step to learn from and mature as a person in the journey onto greater things.

Kipling wrote:

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too‘ 

[..]

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools’

I am not sure where this journey will take me – but this blog is one form of a reference to myself to reflect on my progress over time and serve as a point of reference. In this effort, if it benefits another person find their stride in their own journey – that itself would be a worthwhile outcome of this endeavour

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